While Uganda’s infamous anti-homosexuality bill has been making news headlines lately, another recently passed bill also has the country in an uproar. The anti-pornography law, also known locally as ‘the miniskirt ban,’ has the nation’s women shaking their heads. The law would propose that any sexually suggestive material, including TV shows, music videos, newspapers and magazines should be outlawed. Women wearing suggestive clothing or skirts ‘above the knee’ would be subject to arrest.
The December passage of these draconian laws carried with them a slew of Ugandan women posting pictures of themselves wearing miniskirts on their Facebook profiles. Meanwhile feminist groups within the capital of Kampala discussed wearing short skirts to their monthly meetings.
On any given night, clubs around Uganda are filled with bustling crowds of party-goers and revelers. From upscale venues like Silk, which enforce dress codes banning sandals and shorts, to thatched roof dance-halls like Iguana, where music pumps through a gyrating dance floor, most women have one thing in common: the short skirt. It is not just an ‘outfit’ one can wear. It is the outfit to wear.
“You can tell how long an expat has been here by the length of her skirt” one bartender confides. “Slowly as she grows accustomed to Ugandan culture it shrinks from her ankles to up her thighs”.
When asked if they’d adhere to the miniskirt ban, Ugandan women are skeptical. Lynn, a tall thin Ugandan woman who has spent much of her life working in nightclubs is dubious. “How can they enforce it? Will they come into the clubs and simply round up all the women? Business owners will complain, and then what?”
Her friends agree. “I think it’s a diversion,” Lynn’s colleague Hannah chimed in. “It will never be signed into law, and if it is, it will never be enforced. It’s just keeping us occupied while the government does something else.”
Of course it’s not just women that are upset about the bill. The wording on the anti-pornography act is so vague and it seems to suggest that anything causing arousal ought to be banned. Popular newspapers in Kampala, such as The Red Pepper, are well known for their “Salt & Pepper” section, in which sex stories, relationship advice and pictures of scantily clad ladies about town are featured. Photo shoots with up and coming models in lingerie is common. And although daily news is also printed within the publication, there’s no doubt revenue would take a hit if it was forced to remove the segment.
Of course, for both the anti-homosexuality law and the anti-pornography law, there is a way to go before it actually transitions from bill into act. President Museveni, who has been courting international investors and trying to increase tourism revenue in Uganda, must first sign the law. There is wide speculation over his willingness to do so, as investors and aid partners have threatened to pull out if the law passes. And although the Parliament does have the right to overrule a Presidential veto, the widespread nepotism of East Africa might actually be the people’s saving grace in this instance.
Regardless, the women of Uganda aren’t having it. “This isn’t a religious state” says Sarah, a mother of two who lives in Kampala, who still wears miniskirts when she hits the town. “Sure, if I move to Saudi Arabia then I understand I should wear an abaya when I go out. But this is Uganda. We are neither fundamentally Islamic nor Christian. We are a mix. So why try to contain a woman’s dress?”
“It will never go through” announces another woman seated next to her. “If it does I dare them to arrest me. The police barely come when your home is being robbed. Are they going to spend all their resources carting away smartly dressed ladies?” The two women laugh at this idea.
In a country where the police and government are trying to legitimize themselves to their own people, as well as the international community, the passage of such bills will represent a notable setback. As Sarah stands up to readjust her miniskirt, she tosses her head back and laughs. “It’s like they have nothing more pressing to worry about. Let’s forget about roads, schools, and clean water, because it’s certainly my thighs which are destroying the nation.”
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